"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Barber and the Brethren

When I was doing research for my book Heritage Endures in 2016-17, one of the sections that gave me the most fits was about the genesis of what eventually became the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Indiana. I was writing about joint recognition here and throughout the U.S., but the problem was that there wasn't a good, detailed history of their grand lodge in Indiana to be found. There was a severe lack of written information that could be trusted as being anything but anecdotal, unsupportable, apocryphal, or all three — often depending on who was writing it, when, and why. So I found myself having to write one myself out of necessity. 

In hunting the earliest days of Indiana’s Freemasonry among its black citizens, I recently came across more detailed information about John G. Britton, the founding Grand Master of the Independent Union Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Indiana. It was the predecessor of what eventually became the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana. 

After publishing Heritage Endures in January of last year, I wish this could have been included in my Prince Hall chapter. Sadly, deadlines for our 1818-2018 Bicentennial of the Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana were immovable. I'd like to tell more of the story here. So, think of this as an addendum to the chapter.

by Christopher L. Hodapp

Today, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana has 31 active lodges throughout the state with about 1,000 members. But Indiana's Prince Hall Masons of today stand upon the shoulders of men from a very different time, and they can thank the dedication of one particular Vincennes barber in 1832 with a wry sense of humor for what transpired over the next few decades.

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Most Masons today don't give much thought as to how 'Negro Freemasonry' developed across America after Prince Hall and his fourteen brethren were famously made Masons by former British sergeant John Batt in the late 1770s. In the early to mid-1800s, free black men who had received their Masonic degrees back east in lodges that were chartered by or descended out of Prince Hall's African Lodge in Boston were slowly spreading across the growing country. Because of the segregated nature of nearly every single aspect of American society and cultural institutions both before and after the Civil War, it's nearly impossible to determine if any black men were regularly admitted into the white, 'mainstream' lodges before the late 1840s because lodge records rarely mentioned the race of attendees. 

Prince Hall's African Lodge 459 received a regular charter from the premiere Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) in 1787, and shortly began to establish daughter lodges in the northeast by issuing them copies of its charter (a practice that, while irregular today, was not uncommon during the period). 

Forty-five years after African Lodge's official chartering, Freemasonry among African-Americans was still exceedingly rare. By 1832 it was the height of the Anti-Masonic period, but there were other more threatening issues for these particular Masons. In the slave states where Abolitionists hadn't taken hold, Freemasonry among black men — free or slave — was deemed a dangerous ‘secret society’ that could endanger white society by inciting rebellion in their private meetings. Consequently, Freemasonry among African-Americans was outlawed in those states, and in some states whites could be jailed (or worse) for conferring degrees upon them.

But up north, black Masonic lodges were slowly descending out of Prince Hall’s original African Lodge in Boston. Prince Hall himself had insisted that the terms 'black' and 'negro' carried dehumanizing connotations of slavery, property, and ownership. Consequently, he referred in print to the Masons of his lodge and others who descended out of it be known as 'African Masons.' By 1832 they had chartered daughter African Lodges in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. 
Pittsburgh was about as far west as those lodges were organized when the 1826 William Morgan Affair in New York had all but called a halt to the fraternity in America. 

At the time, the predominantly white "mainstream" grand lodges were not mentioning any black members, at least in print, if they existed at all. But by the 1840s and the growing fights between pro- and anti-slavery forces America in the slow buildup to the war, you will start to find records about white Masons seeking clarification from their grand lodges on the question of whether or not they could initiate or even admit black men. Arguments ensued over the "freeborn" requirement and the endless parsing of that word. The recently 'United' Grand Lodge of England, by contrast, had altered its requirement in 1835 to simply the word "free" after the merger of the Moderns and Antients.

Because of the divide in places our settlers had originally come from, Indiana's population was pretty evenly split between pro- and anti-slavery opinions. Indiana had achieved statehood in 1816, and outlawed slavery in the state by 1818. Free or not, the black population of the Hoosier state was still quite small by 1832. By law, blacks were not allowed to vote or serve in the militia, and couldn't testify in court cases involving whites. After 1831, black settlers in Indiana were required to register with county authorities and to post a $500 bond as a guarantee of good behavior to receive an official "Certificate of Registration." The ostensible goal of this financial penalty had been to prevent Southern slaveholders from importing black slaves into Indiana by making it an expensive proposition to do so. But it had an enormously burdensome effect on free blacks wishing to move into the state. 

It would have been extremely unusual to find a black man in Indiana at that time who declared himself to be a Mason. Even the white Masons were laying low in the 1830s because the Anti-Masons were attacking lodge meetings, locking known Masonic preachers and congregants out of churches, and even openly attacking them in the streets. The Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana itself was nearly ready to close down, as Michigan's had. 
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The newspapers all over the country frequently reported hostile Anti-Masonic activities, and it was almost unheard of for pro-Masonic sentiments to find their way into print. But in the April 14, 1832 issue of the Vincennes Gazette, there appears this announcement:

Betwixt the finger and the thumb, I’ll clamp the nose
And cut the stiffest beard that grows
The subscriber begs leave to inform the citizens of Vincennes and its vicinity that he has opened a new and splendid Barber’s Shop on Market Street, next door to the office of Martin Robinson, Esq. and directly opposite the store of John K. Kurtz, where he will be ready at all times to SHAVE, CUT HAIR, & in the first style; and flatters himself that from his experience, the result of many years’ practice, he will be enabled to nullify the most unbending beard in Christendom, and to modify the Kingdom of the Anti-masons, as to render the subjects thereof glad to escape with their lives.

John G. Britton

March 20, 1832
John G. Britton had been a former slave from Ohio, and in 1832 he appears in Vincennes, Indiana opening his barber shop with this florid and remarkably un-subtle advertisement. The wording makes it clear that, if he wasn’t already a Freemason in 1832 (for which there is no record I can find), he certainly was willing to support and defend them from the Anti-Masons who were making lots of noise around the country.

Indiana's first chartered Masonic lodge had been established by the Grand Lodge of Kentucky in Vincennes in 1809. One can confidently surmise that the prospect of a negro man with a razor in his hand, held at the throat of an Anti-Mason, and who had so openly vowed in print to make such zealots “glad to escape with their lives” immediately found great approbation among the white Masons in Vincennes at that troublesome time. Better still, I suspect that Anti-Masons in the Vincennes area who had formerly been lodge members found themselves suddenly very concerned that someone in town was taking Masonic penalties to be quite literal, and he was issuing a dark warning.

There's no way of knowing, but Britton may have miscalculated the amount of business he could attract with his openly pro-Masonic strategy. He left Vincennes by the next January and tried setting up business again in Richmond, Indiana on the far eastern edge of the state. It's clear from his ads in the Richmond Palladium between 1833-35 that John Britton had an eloquent and dramatic way with words, mixed with his sense of humor. The offer to scare the wits out of Anti-Masons apparently hadn't worked well in Vincennes, and no longer appeared in his new establishment's announcements:

His Imperial Highness, alias J.G. Britton, Autocrat of all the tonsoratical operations of the western realm, hereby makes known to his liege subjects, that he has returned from a brief sojourn at the head quarters of his Hoosier Province, and is now prepared to receive at his palace royal (south side of Main street two doors west of Washington street) all such of his loyal subjects as will manifest their fealty by placing their noses between his digits. To oblige his friends he will remove such tonsile appendages from their persons as they may desire, and he especially requests that his daily levees may be well attended. Given at our Imperial residence the 10th day of the month of full grown whiskers.


J. G. Britton, Barberissimo of the Hoosier ville of Richmond, may be found at his office, between the National Hotel and Union Hall. He does not shave as many gougers do, bank notes &c. but operates on the face in a judicious and scientific manner. He is emphatically a gentleman of the strop. He is the barber of barbers, the greatest barber that ever barberized a barberee in this barberously barberized world. In the room adjoining his office he has all kinds of "kisses" sweet and beer strong, cakes and all kinds of sweetmeats, for sale.
Unfortunately, even beer, candy and cakes weren't able to secure his tonsoratical success in Richmond, either. By 1836 Britton had relocated again, this time to Indianapolis.

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In 1821 Alexander Ralston, a Scottish architect and planner for the brand new capitol of Indianapolis, came to the clearing in the woods that would be the site of the future city. He had been one of Pierre L'Enfant's assistants at the design of the Federal City of Washington, and Ralston was hired because Indiana's legislators wanted their new state capitol to be a similarly planned city that would also rise from the wilderness. Plus, Ralston was cheaper and easier to work with than L'Enfant. It is Ralston's orderly 'Mile Square' design with its distinctive central circle that we still have here to this day. 

Alexander Ralston was a bachelor without any family, but he brought with him a clerk and a 21-year old housekeeper described as “a mulatto woman named Chaney Lively.” 

Chaney Lively had been born a slave in Kentucky, and Ralston had purchased her in Louisville when she was 15 or 16. Slavery in Indiana was outlawed by the state Constitution in 1818, but emigrating slaveholders from other states could evade the law by calling them indentured servants. Nevertheless, Chaney Lively was listed the census as a "free woman of color," and articles and documents describe her as an important and respected member of Ralston's household. When they arrived at the future site of Indianapolis in 1821, he bought two plots of land from the new land agents - one for his home, and one next door that was deeded to Lively at the corner of Meridian and Maryland Streets.

Ralston died in 1827 and provided for Chaney in his will. By the mid 1830s she was known quite well throughout the city as "Aunt Chany" [sic]. And in 1836, she married none other than John G. Britton, formerly of Ohio and Vincennes, barber, and the future first Grand Master of the Independent Union Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Indiana.

"[She] was universally respected by the pioneer ladies of the place who often took tea with her. She always behaved herself with propriety, and never took advantage of the attention shown her by them to be in any ways saucy. She was married to a well known barber named John Britton."
Nowland later describes Britton as "one of our most respectable colored citizens."

An extensive article about Chaney Lively was written in February this year by Laura McPhee for Nuvo, and it has more details about her and her future husband John Britton:
"When Chaney moved into her own home in 1827, there were less than 60 people of color—men, women, and children—living in Indianapolis out of a population of a little more than 1,000. She was the only Black female head of household in the 1830 census, and the first woman of color to own property in the city, most likely the first person of color, male or female, to do so.
To make a living after Ralston’s death, Chaney took in boarders. As construction on the National Road got underway and labor camps sprung up nearby, she also made money by cooking and doing laundry for the workers—particularly African American laborers who were increasingly unwelcome in other parts of town.
"After living on her own for nearly a decade, Chaney married one of those men in March 1836. In his diary entry that day, Calvin Fletcher notes that he heard of the wedding and made a special trip to Chaney’s house to offer the couple his best wishes.
"There is little record of Chaney’s life outside her relationship to Ralston. And in later years, she rarely made headlines. Fortunately, her new husband John G. Britton did make the papers, and his activities offer us glimpse of what her life was like in the 1840-50s.
"Britton came from Ohio in 1835 [sic]. He was also a former slave, keen to set up shop as a barber—one of the few “respectable” businesses for Black men at the time. Within a few years of marrying Chaney, he was widely known in Indianapolis as what we’d now call a community organizer and was remembered as “a very reputable colored man, who kept a barber-shop and accumulated some property” by historian Jacob Piatt Dunn in his 1910 history of the city."
John Britton did indeed make the papers. In 1842, he organized 'Colored Conventions' in Indianapolis and Terre Haute to discuss the educational needs of black children in Indiana, who could not attend the growing number of public schools in the state. He also became a proponent of the 'Back to Africa' movement to resettle American blacks in Liberia. The couple would eventually move to 230 W. Michigan Street.

The Brittons had been founding members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1836 with a handful of members who met in a log cabin on Georgia Street. Bethel AME is the oldest African-American religious congregation in Indianapolis. It quickly became active in the anti-slavery movement and supported the Underground Railway. In 1847, the Brittons' Bethel AME Church petitioned the state for funds to create schools for black children, but was turned away. By 1848 the congregation had grown to 100 members and was meeting in a small frame church. The congregation would eventually establish its own school at the church in 1858.

In 1848, John Britton was a delegate from Indiana to Frederick Douglass' Colored National Convention in Cleveland. It's entirely possible he may have been made a Mason while in Ohio where Masonry among black men was beginning to quickly expand, but I have yet to find any details of his initiation or degrees. There were enough African Masons and African Lodges there that the (Colored) Grand Lodge for the State of Ohio F&AM was established the very next year, in 1849.

Despite the best efforts of civil rights leaders like Douglass, Britton, and scores more, anti-black laws were getting more commonplace in the country in the decade before the Civil War, and Indiana was no exception. The federal Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 and required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were found living in a free state. States north of the Ohio River became a battleground as fleeing slaves often crossed the river at towns like Cincinnati in Ohio, or Madison and New Albany in Indiana, and were chased by slave hunters. Anti-slavery states were now compelled by law to assist them.

Indianapolis Masonic Hall (1850)
John Britton's petitions and activities on behalf of the state's black citizens fell on deaf ears in the Indiana General Assembly. He had been one of the representatives of Indiana’s 10,000 negroes at the 1851 state constitutional convention, which had convened in the brand new Indianapolis Masonic Hall at the corner of Tennessee (now Capitol Avenue) and Washington Streets, across from the Statehouse. 

Despite Britton's and others' passionate objections, Article XIII of Indiana's newly revised Constitution was adopted in 1851. It stated that "No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution." Section 2 provided, “...any person who shall employ [a] negro or mulatto, or otherwise encourage him to remain in the State, shall be fined in sum not less than ten dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.” Section 3 provided that money from fines taken from illegal black migrants be used to defray costs of sending blacks in Indiana to Liberia. Additional legislation required all blacks already living in Indiana to register with the clerk of the circuit court. 

Article XIII was ratified by over 60 percent of the white voters in the state, and by law, Indiana's black citizens were not permitted to vote. After this and other laws quickly passed in the wake of the 1851 Constitution, Indiana had the national distinction of having the most restrictive racial settlement laws outside of the slaveholding South.

It was in this atmosphere that Prince Hall-derived African Freemasonry in Indiana began to organize and grow. African Masonry officially planted its banner in Indiana in 1849 when the new (Colored) Grand Lodge for the State of Ohio F&AM issued a charter for Union Lodge 5 in Indianapolis. It still exists today, known as Central Lodge 1, and is the oldest Prince Hall lodge in Indiana.
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By 1850, African-American Masons who worked the Ohio River boats and steamers from Cincinnati and as far east as Pittsburgh began to spread the degrees of Freemasonry to other black men across the Mason-Dixon Line in Louisville. These new brethren in Kentucky wanted to establish an African Lodge in their own city, but knew it was unsafe for them at that time. 1850 was a menacing year. So, black Masons crossed the river to New Albany, Indiana where they established their Ohio-chartered Kentucky lodge, Mount Moriah 1. There, they rented a furnished lodge room from the Grand Lodge of Indiana’s white New Albany Lodge 39, whose members had just moved into a new Masonic hall of their own. It was actually safer for Louisville’s black Freemasons to cross the river into free Indiana for their regular meetings until they found a secure location in Louisville three years later. But New Albany’s white Masons acting as their landlords was far from openly acknowledging them on the level as Brothers. 

That would require another century and a half.

On June 22nd of 1855, the African Masons held their first known Indiana public procession in Indianapolis, with fourteen lodges represented, and visitors from as far away as New Orleans. The Richmond (Indiana) Palladium reported that the event was followed by an "elegant dinner in the [Indianapolis] Masonic Hall." There was just one Masonic Hall in Indianapolis in 1855. It had been built by the white Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana as its headquarters and meeting hall for lodges and York Rite bodies in the city five years before. As in New Albany, race clearly wasn't an issue when their black Brethren needed a place to meet. Despite Freemasonry's strictures against political or religious discussions during its tyled meetings, in the coming years the Indianapolis Masonic Hall would also be the site of political meetings and heated presentations by anti-slavery speakers. As late as 1868, John Britton would organize a State Colored Man's Convention that was held at the Masonic Hall on Emancipation Day.

By 1856, there were five African Lodges chartered in Indiana by the (Colored) Grand Lodge in Ohio. In 1856 those five lodges formed the Independent Union Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Indiana, electing none other than former Vincennes barber John G. Britton as their first Grand Master, who served from 1856-59.

After his years as Grand Master, John Britton would continue to serve Indiana's black Freemasons with great distinction well into the 1880s as their Grand Lecturer.

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James S. Hinton, Indiana's
first black State Representative and
second Grand Master of Independent Union grand Lodge.
His bust is on display in the Indiana State House.
John G. Britton was just the first of many prominent black Masons in Indiana. The Independent Union Grand Lodge's second Grand Master from 1859-64, James Sidney Hinton, became a Union Army recruiter of African-Americans for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th United States Colored Regiments during the Civil War. He returned to Indiana to organize the Indiana 28th United States Colored Troop forming in Indianapolis. 

After the war, James Hinton was later elected in 1880 as the first African-American State Representative to the Indiana General Assembly.

(There's more to this story. For the purposes of this blog post, I'll skip the establishment of the National Compact of black grand lodges, of which Indiana's 'African Masons' became part for a while. The ensuing two decades get more complex until they resolve their differences. This is where the division between PHA and PHO Prince Hall grand lodges comes from, but it's a complex tale of its own. I outline it in Heritage Endures, and other authors like Alton Roundtree have examined the National Compact in far greater detail than I needed to do.)

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African-American Masons would ultimately enjoy greater prestige and provide more leaders within their own community than other later black fraternal groups, despite having fewer members than others. By 1892 there were 24 of what we call today Prince Hall Affiliated lodges in Indiana, and by 1900 they had chartered 68, with a total membership of almost one thousand. 

The “Great Migration” period when massive numbers of African-Americans from the economically depressed South relocated into the industrialized North after World War I brought tremendous growth to Prince Hall Freemasonry throughout Indiana, especially in the northern part of the state around Lake Michigan and its numerous factories.

Nationwide, Prince Hall Freemasonry reached its peak membership by the late 1960s with 310,000 members in 5,100 lodges. 

Indiana Freemasons Unity Day 2019
Beginning in 1989, the 51 mainstream state grand lodges in America and the Prince Hall grand lodges began individual negotiations around the country to at last achieve joint recognition between the two historically segregated Masonic traditions. This was largely seen by Prince Hall Masons to be preferable to merging the two groups in order to preserve their own unique, longstanding history and traditions. In 1999, the Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana and the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana agreed to jointly recognize each other, and today enjoy reciprocal visitation. 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of that historic agreement.

Heritage Endures


  1. In 1999, at the time of the mutual recognition, I was a reporter with the Vincennes Sun-Commercial. I wrote a news story about it, interviewing PGM Robert R. "Gus" Stevens, who helped make it happen, and WB Steve Tolbert, past master of Anchor Lodge, Vincennes' former PHA lodge. Steve told me Anchor Lodge folded due to lack of new members "because there were no opportunities for young black men in Vincennes." I wonder if MWB John Britton moved from Vincennes because he didn't have enough business to maintain his barber shop. If so, it is too bad. I'm sure any man with enough chutzpah to create that advertisement would have made a lasting impact on Vincennes, even in those times. On the other hand, Vincennes would have been too small a stage for a man of that ability, so I guess society and history needed him to move to Indianapolis, for look what he did there.

  2. Thank you for excellent article Bro. Hodnapp. I am actually beginning a project on the origins of Prince Hall Freemasonry in the former Confederacy during the Civil War and Reconstruction. May I please contact you directly to ask you about your particular research and sources?

  3. Excellent. I am forwarding this article. That history was not widely known.

  4. Thank you for this illuminating history, Christopher. My wife's great-great grandfather was John W. Harrison. I came across your research because there were hints that J W Harrison had been involved with bringing PH Masonry to Michigan. We really only found out about this part of the family less than 10 years ago. J.W.'s granddaughter lived in Vincennes and married a man from Vincennes. This is all exciting information.


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